How to Play Pontoon

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The 18th century card game known as vingt-et-un (twenty-one) took two separate paths as it migrated beyond its home in France. In the United States it became Blackjack, while in Great Britain it became Pontoon. Many aspects of the two derivations are similar, from playing against a dealer with a standard 52-card deck to counting Aces as 1 or 11 points and court cards (King, Queen, Jack) as 10 points.

Also in both games, the player’s objective is to form a hand that totals more than the dealer’s hand, but without exceeding 21 points. The top hand in Blackjack consists of an Ace and a card valued at 10 points, which is called a “blackjack,” whereas in Pontoon the same hand ranks highest and is called a “pontoon.”

The first big difference on encounters between the British and American games is that the second best Pontoon hand is any five cards totaling 21 or less. In some circles, this is known as a “five-card trick” or a “five-card Charlie.” Hands that have a value of 21 and consist of three or four cards are beaten by this combination as well as by a pontoon. In all other cases, the highest hand wins, and any hand that exceeds 21 points is a “bust,” which automatically loses.

In the casino version of Pontoon, a double deck is often used, with the cards shuffled after each hand. Before receiving their cards, players must make their wagers and any side bets allowed. One common side bet found at casino tables is “Sweet 16.” It pays even money if the player’s first two cards make a total between 16 and 21 or contain an Ace. A pair of 2’s or 7’s is treated as a “push,” no winner, and all other hands lose.

As soon as all of the initial bets have been made, the players are dealt two cards each, face up at most tables, but face down at others. The dealer also gets two cards, one of which is turned face up for all to see. The other card is retained face down as a hidden “hole” card. Players then have the opportunity to draw additional cards or stand on the two cards they have been dealt. Pairs can be split to create two hands, although generally only once per hand—no resplitting allowed.

Compared to Blackjack, doubling is quite different in Pontoon. A player may double the active wager at any time during the game before drawing a card and as many times as desired, so long as the total of the hand does not exceed 21.

For example, a player might double down on a 6-3 hand totaling 9, draw a 2 to make 11, and then double down again in an attempt to get a 10 for 21 on the next draw. In much the same way, if the 6-3-2 hand catches an Ace to make 12, the player may wish to double and try to draw a fifth card less than 10 to make a five-card Charlie. In Pontoon, it is also permissible to draw a card after doubling without doubling again.

Such liberal rules for doubling make Pontoon an exciting game. Doubling also reduces the House advantage, so some special rules have been designed regarding the way in which the dealer’s hand is played. At most Pontoon tables, the dealer is required to draw to any total of soft 17 or less and stand on all hands that are valued at hard 17 or higher. Also, there are no pushes. The dealer wins all ties, which includes pontoons and Charlie’s long with hands of equal value.

For example, if a player’s three cards are all 7’s and the dealer draws 6-3-2-A-5, the dealer’s hand wins. Similarly, if a player holds 6-3-2-A-9 for a total of 21 and the dealer has 6-5-A-3-4 for a total of 19, the dealer still wins, because the hands are both Charlie’s. The “no push” rule adds to the House edge in a big way.

In countries such as Australia and Malaysia, and at some online casinos, Pontoon has been further revised to remove all of the tens from play. This makes the game more like Spanish 21. Players should check the rules carefully before participating in any card game, but for Pontoon this is especially true outside Britain.

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